A decade ago, Vietnamese cafés were springing up everywhere in Manhattan’s Chinatown, offering over-rice meals cheaper than anyone else’s. The delicate charcoal-grilled pork chops, lemongrass chicken, and steaming bowls of pho became an obsession with many diners, and the bright-tasting palate of flavors—which included fresh mint, cilantro, Asian basil, and the vinegary fish sauce called nuoc cham—influenced chefs all over the city. Pricewise, these cafés were eventually undersold by newer Malaysian and Fuzhou places, and most descended into mediocrity or simply disappeared.
But great Vietnamese food didn’t vanish completely. Like many Manhattanites, it simply moved to Brooklyn. Cruising Bath Beach under the elevated B tracks, a pal and I spotted Pho Tay Ho. Named after a prerevolutionary Hanoi street adjacent to a popular lake, the café is located in an area dominated by Italian and Japanese eateries, the latter cashing in on the current Russian passion for sushi. On a recent Saturday afternoon the modern premises—resembling a Chinese restaurant with lacquered woods, big green tables, and backlit waterfall transparency—were thronged with extended families. Though we hadn’t expected much, the first dishes that arrived were stunning.
Sounding like a lonely Christian living in one of Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhoods, goi tom ($4) turned out to be a shrimp salad with as much attention paid to visual impact as to savor. A corona of dark greens surrounded a shrimp mosaic laid over a haystack of shredded cabbage, purple onions, and crushed peanuts in a tart and sweet dressing. With a lot more prawns than required for the price, each one carefully de-shelled and deveined, we dismantled the salad forthwith. Next came bo la lot ($8.95), roll-ups of thin-sliced beef wrapped in grape leaves and grilled. The aroma is wonderful, but the stuffed leaves are only the nucleus of the dish. Alongside come sprouts, mint, romaine, and a plate of rice-paper sheets to wrap up all the other components. Called banh trang, these papers are so thin they make filo seem like foam rubber, and their delivery in perfect condition is a technical triumph. Use them quickly or they glob together, and dip your assemblages in the carrot-laced bowl of nuoc cham.
The sprawling menu includes plenty of seafood (mainly whole fish, shrimp, and squid), Chinese-leaning stir-fries, the usual spring and summer rolls, and crowd-pleasing combos which can be had heaped on rice or vermicelli for around $5. In addition, Pho Tay Ho has a special predilection for beef. We spotted bo luc loc ($8.50) on nearly every table, hunks of coarse-textured meat sautéed in butter and piled on a salad that becomes deliciously sodden with juices. If this sounds French-influenced, be assured it is. Similarly Gallic are banh mi bo kho ($4.75), a rich ragout of beef, potatoes, and carrots served with an entire baguette, and bo nhung dam ($11.95), a vat of vinegary boiling water that invites you to cook slices of thin-shaved beef in its depths by swooshing them with your chopsticks. Fondue!
Very few selections were out-and-out awful, but number among them anything made with squid, which has a lifeless canned taste. Rather, focus on pho (pronounced “fuh”), since the reputation of any Vietnamese restaurant rises or falls on its excellence. Though this rice-noodle soup is the national dish, pho is also street food, based on a broth that can take as long as five days to prepare in some of the better stalls. Pho Tay Ho’s is a beautiful translucent mahogany, with a faint odor of star anise. Available in 20 variations, it’s every bit as good as Manhattan’s used to be.